There was an old man who lived in a small house by an expansive lake. The old man’s name was Merlin Emrys and he’d been around for as long as the people could remember. Grandparents told their grandchildren stories about the kind and gentle old man, but they never mentioned that he never seemed to age a day in his life. It was odd, but that never seemed to be an important detail to them. They didn’t seem to process that a man that old when they were young should not still be living today. Perhaps it was a sort of magic.
Merlin was not a recluse, but he seemed reluctant to ever form attachments to anyone. He was fond of the children and would keep them entertained, but as they grew older, he would gradually distance himself from them until they only spoke to him in passing, retaining their fond memories but having no desire to reinforce the attachment.
Merlin was, however, very attached to the lake and the small island with the scraggly stone tower on it. The island was not developed and it had likely been that way for thousands of years. Yet no archaeologists had gone to the island to see what people built the tower and exactly how long ago they had been there. No one had the desire to go to the island, or even to go out upon the lake. It had an aura that kept most people away or made their eyes slip past it.
The children understood Merlin’s fascination with the lake better than the adults did – perhaps that’s why they were so fond of him and he tried to entertain them. In his biweekly journeys to the lake, where he would sit on a bench on the slope next to the bridge, simply watching, a child or two would often join him.
There was one girl in particular who loved to watch the lake with Merlin. She absolutely adored the old man and his kind ways, his gentle smile. He reminded her of her grandfather, who she only got to see on holidays since he lived far away. Her mother and father had also been fond of Merlin when they were younger, and they had no objections to their child spending much of her time with Merlin, looking over the lake. In fact, they were quite grateful; on the days that Merlin went to the lake, he became the little girl’s babysitter, unofficially of course, but he never minded walking her back home, making polite talk with her parents before wandering back home.
This little girl, Brynn, always found a listener in Merlin. She would tell him about school, about friends, about parents, about homework with all the excitement a nine-year-old girl could muster. Merlin simply listened with a small smile on his face, prompting her with questions when her own natural enthusiasm waned. So this pattern went on, twice a week for many weeks.
When Brynn came one day, grinning with pride and telling Merlin that she’d reached double digits, he’d smiled and pulled a cupcake seemingly out of nowhere, a little pink one with “10” written in blue. It stunned her how he always had something to make her happy. Little trinkets to cheer her up or make her day even better. All of the children loved Merlin for his generosity – it seemed he lived to make them smile. But Brynn spent enough time around him to begin to feel a bit guilty; he had given her so many little things and told her so many little jokes and been such a good listener, but she had never done anything for him.
She told her parents she wanted to give Merlin a gift. They were wholeheartedly in agreement. They had once tried to offer him money, seeing that he was babysitting their daughter, but the old man had refused with a smile, telling them to keep their money for better uses. But they simply couldn’t think of anything the man could want. He never seemed to desire anything.
Brynn was so sad to think that she couldn’t give anything to the old man who had become a good friend of hers when her mother quietly suggested, “Why don’t you be a listener for him?”
The little girl lit up. That was a perfect idea. After all, that was what Brynn loved most about Merlin – he would always be there to listen to a story, no matter what it was about. And she realized now that she knew so little about him, only that he was old, kind, and generous. It was time for her to learn more, Brynn decided.
So when she met Merlin at the lake one day, she only smiled when Merlin asked after her day and replied, “What about you, Merlin? How was your day?”
Merlin seemed slightly taken aback, but he smiled at her and said, “The same as any old day, actually. They all tend to blur together when you’re my age.”
“How old are you?” Brynn asked curiously.
“Older than you’d believe,” Merlin winked.
“That’s not an answer,” she protested, but she didn’t push him farther.
Merlin again questioned after her day, but she frowned at him. “Why don’t you want to talk about you?”
“I’m not all that interesting…” He replied, looking back at the lake.
“But you have to have some stories!” Brynn exclaimed. “And you always listen to me and make me feel happy, so I want you to have someone to talk to too.”
Merlin looked at her fondly. “Very well. Thank you, Brynn. What would you like a story about?”
Brynn thought about all the options she could ask about. She could ask about family or friends. She could ask about when he was little. She could ask about when he knew her parents. But there was one thing that she was truly curious about. “Why do you come to the lake all the time?”
The old man’s eyes misted over, a bit of sadness showing through. Brynn felt bad for asking and almost took the question back, but as she opened her mouth to speak, Merlin began to reminisce. “This lake has been around forever, Brynn. It will always be here. Nothing will ever take it away. Can you feel it?”
Brynn shook her head and Merlin smiled slightly. “Close your eyes, Brynn.” She obeyed. “Just sit and listen and feel. Can’t you feel the charge to the air? How everything is at peace right here? How everything is connected?”
The little girl felt it. Immediately, the air felt heavier, but there was a sense of serenity to the heaviness – it was not oppressive. “Oh…” She let out a little sigh. “Why didn’t I feel it before?”
“Most people don’t want to notice it,” Merlin said quietly. “They just slip right past the lake.”
“Why don’t they want to notice it? It’s nice,” Brynn replied, opening her eyes to look at the old man.
“The lake doesn’t want them to notice it because then people would go try to find where that feeling comes from and they’d get too close to the island.”
“But if no one goes on the lake, why is it there?” The little girl asked, suddenly realizing how odd it was that there was a lake, yet no boats or birds on it.
“It’s there to hold the magic,” he smiled at her.
“My brother said there’s no such thing as magic,” she replied, remembering the time not too long ago that her older brother had cruelly showed her that all magic tricks were just illusions.
“Of course there’s magic!” Merlin exclaimed. “Your brother just doesn’t understand. But you do, you can feel it, can’t you?”
The little girl reluctantly nodded. The feeling in the air did feel like she’d always imagined magic to be.
There was silence for a few moments before Brynn asked, “So you come here for the magic feeling?”
Merlin nodded slowly. “That, and I’m waiting.”
“Waiting for what?”
“Someone very important to me.” Merlin’s gaze was now cloudy as he stared out over the lake.
“Is the person part of your family? And are they on the island? Why are they there?”
“Not quite family, but I loved him very much. And I’m not sure exactly where he is, but he will come back here. He was sent there a very long time ago, and I have been waiting for the magic to bring him back to me ever since.”
“How long?” Brynn couldn’t help but ask.
“More than a thousand years,” Merlin told her in a low voice.
“I know that’s not possible,” Brynn said matter-of-factly. “My great-grandma lived a long time and she barely made it past one hundred.”
“The magic likes me,” he replied, “so I get to stay alive until my friend comes back. But it is very hard to wait for him.”
Brynn still thought he was lying, but she wondered who Merlin claimed to be waiting for. “Can you tell me about your friend?”
Merlin hesitated before finally nodding. “His name was Arthur. And he was a king.”
“Like in The Sword in the Stone!” Brynn exclaimed excitedly. “And you’re old and your name is Merlin so it works perfectly!”
He laughed. “Not quite like that. Back then, when I knew Arthur, I was young, just like him. I haven’t always been old you know.”
Brynn couldn’t imagine him young, but she nodded anyways, hoping for him to continue telling her about Arthur.
“Arthur was the greatest warrior in the land and a benevolent king. He wasn’t very nice when we first met, but he learned humility and kindness over the years. I used to tease him constantly about his attitude, and he’d give it back just as well. I was his servant…”
“People don’t have servants anymore.”
“No they don’t, but this was a very long time ago. This was in Camelot. All the royalty had servants, and I had become Arthur’s servant because I saved his life when he was a prince, years before he became king.”
The day went on as usual, but instead of Brynn telling stories about her day, Merlin was telling stories of the old days, what he claimed had happened when he was younger.
That set the tone for their next encounters. Brynn would share about her day and when her enthusiasm waned, Merlin would begin to tell his own stories rather than prompting her to continue hers.
Brynn liked this new aspect of Merlin. He seemed to enjoy talking about Arthur and himself and Camelot. She learned about lots of people that Merlin had loved – people with names like Gwen, Morgana, Freya, Will, Leon, Percival, Elyan, Lancelot, Gwaine, and Gaius. She learned about mythical creatures like dragons – she particularly liked the stories about Kilgarrah – and wyverns and griffins. She learned that Merlin had been lonely, or at least she inferred that. The way the stories gushed out of him, it seemed he hadn’t shared them with anyone in a very long time.
She wasn’t sure she believed him. Even though the magical feeling around the lake grew stronger to her every time she went there, she still wasn’t quite ready to believe that Merlin had lived for so long and had really been around back in the medieval times, which were forever ago!
Still, she told her parents the stories that Merlin told her. They didn’t seem to believe him either, but were happy that he was able to keep their daughter entertained with fairytales. They were worried that he was getting tired of their daughter talking the whole time.
But one day, Brynn learned to believe. She was sitting with Merlin as usual and had just finished telling him about her best friend Tegan’s birthday party, when Merlin stiffened.
“Merlin, what’s wrong?” She asked, hoping he wasn’t hurt. She didn’t have a phone or anything to call 999 and she didn’t know what else to do if something bad happened.
However, whatever had happened, it wasn’t bad, as Merlin’s face lit up into the brightest smile she’d ever seen. She had never seen him so happy, and she wondered why, before Merlin simply whispered, “Arthur.”
And then, it was like she wasn’t even there. Merlin stood up and walked, as if in a trance, down the small slope to the water’s edge. She wanted to follow, but it was if she could feel the magic trying to hold her back. So she stayed put.
Suddenly, there was something breaking the surface of the water. Brynn caught her breath, never before having seen the lake ripple, even in stormy weather.
The thing breaking the surface was obviously a person, it became clear a moment later. The figure was staggering up the shore and Merlin ran into the water without hesitation. Brynn was surprised at how fast the old man could move.
Merlin managed to catch the figure by the arm before he stumbled. Brynn took a moment to study the man. His blond hair shone, even in the weak sunlight, and Brynn could make out bright blue eyes. He looked like the sort of celebrity that he and her friends would have a crush on. But he wasn’t dressed normally. He was in metal armor and chainmail, with a brilliant sword strapped to his waist and a red cape with a golden dragon flowing behind him. He didn’t appear to be wet, even though he was standing thigh deep in water.
“Merlin?” The figure asked in a raspy voice, looking up in wonder at Brynn’s friend.
He nodded, and Brynn could see his eyes were watery.
“Why are you so old?” The blond man asked, his voice stronger now. “And what are you wearing?”
Merlin laughed, loud and clear. “Because it’s been over a thousand years, you prat.”
The man looked confused. “That long? It feels like I’ve only been gone moments…”
“And I feel like you’ve been gone for more than one millennium,” Merlin said, finally pulling the man into a hug. The two clutched at each other and Brynn noticed a change coming over Merlin.
His hair appeared to be shrinking back into his head while becoming darker, until it was pitch black. She could just see the side of his face, and the skin appeared to be tightening. His smile returned and Brynn could see white teeth inside, rather than the yellowed shade that she was used to.
When the two pulled apart, Brynn was looking at what appeared to be an entirely new person. Merlin was now replaced by a young man, the other man’s age, with black hair, smooth skin, and a blinding smile. But
Brynn knew it was her Merlin, as his eyes were still the same bright blue, just twinkling with more happiness than she had ever seen.
“That’s the Merlin I’m used to,” the other man smiled, cupping Merlin’s cheek. “Even if you are still dressed in ridiculous clothing.”
“You’re the one who’s dressed ridiculously, Arthur,” Merlin grinned. “We’ll have to fix that.”
“Lead away,” Arthur said, leaning forward to lightly peck Merlin on the lips. Merlin’s grin got impossibly wider when they pulled away.
“Come on,” Merlin gripped Arthur’s hand tightly before beginning to lead him up the hill.
Brynn stared at them as they stopped in front of her. Merlin’s smile became softer and gentler, the smile she’d always seen on his face when he was an old man.
“Brynn,” he said quietly, and she could hear the difference in his voice as well.
“Merlin?” She asked. Even seeing his transformation, it was hard to believe.
He nodded. “This is Arthur, the one I’ve been waiting for.”
She reached out her hand to the imposing figure, who shook her hand with a small smile that made him look a bit less mythical.
“So you’ve been talking about me?” Arthur raised an eyebrow at Merlin.
Merlin gave him a look. “It’s been over 1500 years, Arthur. I was going mad. When she asked… Well, I couldn’t help myself.”
“Thank you for that,” Brynn said, suddenly rushing forward to hug her friend. “Those stories were wonderful, I never minded listening.”
“And I never minded telling,” Merlin leaned down to kiss her cheek lightly. “Now we need to get you home.”
“I thought we were getting me settled,” Arthur protested.
“We’ll see to Brynn first. You’ll get to see more of the 21st century.” Merlin told him.
Arthur shrugged and tightened his grip on Merlin’s hand.
“Won’t people notice you’re not old anymore?” Brynn asked, surprised that he was just going to walk out like that.
“I can fix that,” Merlin replied with a grin before closing his eyes. When he opened them again, Brynn jumped as she noticed that they were bright gold. When the gold faded, Merlin had morphed back into his old, familiar self.
“And I’ve got a trick so no one will see Arthur,” Merlin’s voice was raspy again, “so we’ll be alright.”
“And why can’t anyone see me?” Arthur protested.
“Because, clotpole, people don’t wear chainmail and armor anymore.”
“Of course they do. How else would they protect themselves?”
“I told you, the world is a very different place.”
With that, Merlin led the way down the street, Arthur on his right and Brynn on his left. Brynn looked around as they walked back to her house, but Merlin really had done his magic – no one else seemed to be able to see Arthur and his various stunned reactions to things as simple as cars and asphalt. Merlin kept a stream of explanations going the whole way there with Brynn jumping in every once and a while if she could.
They finally reached her home and knocked on the door. Her mom opened it quickly and grinned at Merlin, thanking him with a smile and completely ignoring the presence of Arthur right next to him.
Before she went into the house, Brynn tugged Merlin down so she could give him a proper hug. “I’m glad he finally came back,” she whispered to him.
“Me too,” Merlin whispered back.
She pulled away and grinned at them, shyly waving at Arthur, before backing into her house. She could hear the two bickering about something on the street and smiled as Merlin’s voice changed to his younger one. She had truly never heard him so happy. She was glad for him.
That night at dinner, she told her parents that Merlin had finally found Arthur, but they didn’t seem too interested in the news. She was disappointed that they weren’t interested, but she supposed it could be
Merlin’s magic. Maybe that was why the townspeople had never questioned him being so old, why her parents had trusted him so implicitly, why neither her parents nor her friends had ever found it odd that
Merlin’s stories (as told by Brynn) about his younger years featured the man himself in medieval times.
She wasn’t sure if Merlin would be at his usual bench on the usual day now that Arthur was back, but she went back, too stuck in her habit to change it now. She just prayed he would come – she wanted to see him.
She heard a loud laugh nearby after sitting on the bench for a few minutes, and turned to see Merlin nearly crying with laughter while Arthur chuckled beside him. The man from the past was now dressed in jeans and a hoodie, looking shockingly normal after his magical appearance the last time she saw him. Merlin was young still – Brynn had a feeling this was his new normal form now that Arthur was back – and his happiness had clearly not diminished since Arthur first came back.
The two men approached the bench, Merlin finally managing to calm down before sitting next to Brynn. Arthur didn’t even hesitate to sit next to Merlin and wrap an arm around his waist.
“Brynn,” Merlin said quietly, as he controlled his smile, “I need to talk to you seriously.”
The ten-year-old nodded, hoping this wasn’t bad news.
“Arthur and I are going to have to leave very soon. According to the legends, Arthur wasn’t going to come back until the world needed him again. So there is something out there that needs fixing, and Arthur and I need to go find it. Besides, I can’t keep the charade as my older self for much longer. Very soon, my older self will ‘move away’. Arthur and I may stay here for a little bit afterwards, pretend to be tourists, but we can’t stay long. I’m sorry.”
Brynn could feel tears collecting in her eyes; she couldn’t believe her confidante was leaving. Of course she had other friends, but Merlin was special, and not just because of his magic. He was quite possibly the nicest person she’d ever met. “I’ll miss you…” She finally managed to say, keeping her tears out of her voice.
Merlin smiled. “I’ll miss you too. And Arthur and I might get to come back and visit. But you’ll have to find a new babysitter for the days when we sit by the lake.”
“So that stops now?” She asked sadly.
“Not now, exactly,” Merlin replied. “Arthur and I will come back on our normal days until we have to leave, and we’ll tell you when that is.”
Brynn nodded, feeling a bit better that she wouldn’t have to give this up just yet.
“I do have one request though,” Merlin said quietly.
“What is it?”
“I need you to remember the magic.”
“What do you mean, remember the magic?” Brynn asked, confused. “I wouldn’t be able to forget it if I tried!”
Merlin smiled. “Of course you could. That’s what happens to everyone. I always stay with the children because they believe in magic. They can feel it in ways that the adults who have become jaded can’t. That’s why when most kids get older, I distance myself from them. Brynn, I used to be your parents’ friend too, but when they got older, they lost their potential too. All I ask is that you come back here every once-in-a-while and just feel the magic. Hopefully that will help you keep it in your heart. You can tell your friends too – the more people feel it, the stronger it will stay. I just would hate for you to lose your way.”
“I promise,” Brynn said solemnly, knowing she meant it. It would be easy to come here and sit in peace, so long as she could convince her parents to come with her. Maybe she could convince them to believe in magic if they could sit here and feel it.
Merlin grinned. “Thank you. Now are you ready for more stories?”
She nodded eagerly and Merlin began his stories again. This time Arthur butted in frequently and the two bickered about what happened until Merlin brought out his magic to create little holographic memories. Brynn was still shocked by the way his eyes turned to molten gold, but she got used to it eventually and simply watched the memories in wonder.
Arthur complained that the memories were manipulated whenever they proved that events happened Merlin’s way rather than Arthur’s way, but Merlin just rolled his eyes and laughed.
They only had a few days like that before Merlin and Arthur were moving. Brynn was sad to see them go, but she couldn’t help but be excited for them on their new adventure. They were just so ready to go that it was contagious.
Before they left, they stopped to say goodbye to her. Arthur thanked her for keeping Merlin sane, though Brynn didn’t really think it was her who did that, and Merlin kissed her on the cheek before handing her a package and saying, “Don’t open that until your parents aren’t around.”
Brynn nodded and that night, in her room, she opened the box. A small dragon that appeared to be made of fire flapped its wings and took off out of the box, making a lap around her room. The embers soon rearranged themselves into letters: This isn’t the last goodbye. See you soon.
And if Merlin, who had been around for over 1,500 years, had a different definition of soon than Brynn, it was okay. Because she knew that even if it was many years later, she would see her friend again.